The adjective totalitarian meaning:

Of or pertaining to a system of government which tolerates only one political party, to which all other institutions are subordinated, and which usu. demands the complete subservience of the individual to the State. (OED)

derives from the Italian totalitario coined in the 1920s as a description of fascism.

However in the list of OED examples below, several of them use totalitarian in a non-political sense. E.g. from 1936 a reference to the corporate and totalitarian character of the Christian response to God. And from 1937 totalitarian scholarship.

This morning, on the BBC's programme The Big Issue, an Islamic member of the contributing group talked about the human conscience being totalitarian. I believe that what he meant by that was that conscience had control over every aspect of life. But the remark did raise eyebrows.

My question is whether the term totalitarian can be used to describe such things as religion, art, culture, etc. And if so, what meaning does it have? And does it simply mean "having the nature of totality"? Would it not be appropriate for the OED to recognise a separate non-political sense of the term?

1926 B. B. Carter tr. L. Sturzo Italy & Fascismo ix. 220
Anti-Fascism..has, however, a positive sense if it is taken to represent an element antagonistic to the ‘totalitarian’ and absolute position of Fascism.

1929 Times 2 Nov. 7/5 A reaction against parliamentarism..in favour of a ‘totalitarian’ or unitary state, whether Fascist or Communist.

1936 E. Underhill Worship xii. 251 This cultus is, in origin, an acknowledgement of the corporate and totalitarian character of the Christian response to God.

1937 E. Pound in Germany & You 25 Apr. 95 (heading) Totalitarian scholarship and the new paideuma.

1937 E. Pound in Germany & You 25 Apr. 96/2 In 1937 we are concerned with the reintegration of the arts in totalitarian synthesis.

1940 Hutchinson's Pict. Hist. War 2 Oct.–26 Nov. 183 We have all heard lately about total or totalitarian war. It has been defined as conflict between nations taking the place of armed forces. Every citizen is in a sense a combatant and also the object of attack.

1951 H. Arendt Burden of our Time iii. x. 303 Totalitarian movements aim at and succeed in organizing masses—not classes.

1964 H. Marcuse One Dimensional Man i. 3 ‘Totalitarian’ is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.

1977 M. Walker National Front i. 15 The totalitarian society is a single-minded structure. It mobilizes all its resources under one authority to achieve one goal.

  • You're welcome to use it in a non-political sense. It's likely that many readers will still perceive it as a political (or quasi-political) statement, however.
    – Hot Licks
    May 29, 2016 at 11:25
  • @HotLicks So what is a totalitarian conscience?
    – WS2
    May 29, 2016 at 12:47
  • You'd have to ask the guy. It's unclear from the limited context whether he meant that the conscience of everyone has that attribute, or just some people. And the meaning of "conscience" in that context is also unclear. But best guess he's saying that the ones conscience overrides (or should) all other aspects of the thought process -- a point of view that I find a bit questionable.
    – Hot Licks
    May 29, 2016 at 12:52
  • Almost none of those examples uses anything but the fascist sense of the word. Fascism sought to replace the traditional roles of society with a new order focused on the state as a common good & highest authority. This overtly included family life, economics, and religion. The utterly comprehensive nature of the approach is why big M. coined the term "totalitarian". (IOW, the definition OED gives is overly constrained, but is really the only sense required.)
    – The Nate
    May 30, 2016 at 9:14
  • @TheNate Yes, I did acknowledge that they were probably all using the word in the "fascist" sense in a later comment (see below Josh61 answer) But there must exist examples of its use in other senses.
    – WS2
    May 31, 2016 at 10:14

1 Answer 1


Interesting issue, apparently the 'non-political' meaning is more common in Italian where the term originated, than in English. The suggested meaning refers to things "considered in all their aspects, with no exception, global" . For instance: A totalitarian view of reality:

totalitàrio agg. [der. di totalità].:

    1. Della totalità, che si riferisce alla totalità, cioè a tutte senza eccezione le persone o cose considerate: la sua iniziativa ha avuto un’adesione t., di tutti coloro che vi sono coinvolti o comunque interessati; avere una visione totalitaria della realtà (più com. globale).
    1. Nel linguaggio politico, ispirato al totalitarismo, fondato sul totalitarismo: ideologie totalitaria, una concezione politica totalitaria; regime, stato, governo totalitario.


  • 1
    This is very interesting. The OED, lists only one adjectival and one noun meaning - the political one. They are essentially the same, and are as I have stated in my OP. And I suppose the examples given from the 1930s are using the word in the political sense. We are concerned with the integration of the arts in a totalitarian sense, I suppose refers to the systm of government then in place. So any different meaning of totalitarian would appear to be absent from the OED. Are you able to translate the Italian for us?
    – WS2
    May 29, 2016 at 17:29

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